Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Interview

The interpreter was with Stacey, driving to the Head Office of the Parks Department, which was in a tall glass building known to have caused the deaths of countless migrating birds.

They had spent the night before prepping for his job interview-- rather, the interview that would decide whether or not he would keep his job. This was not a completely novel situation. As an auxiliary union member, he was temporarily laid off late every fall, and required to interview to return to his position early the following spring. And it was always the identical interview. He knew which questions would be asked, and in what order. This would seem to make the interview easier, but it didn’t; it made the process insulting and demoralizing, which is never easy to deal with.

But this was the first time he would have to re-interview in mid-season. The reason was his five-week layoff. The reason for the lay-off had been his performance in the first (and only) two post-lightning programs he had led. In one, a school program, he fell asleep in a hollow cedar stump wide enough to hold half a class of grade twos, after telling the story of the great original forest, and of its destruction. Story finished, he leaned back against the inner wall of the giant tree and drifted off, and the children wandered away. The interpreter was accused of being drunk, which he wasn’t. He just wasn’t ready yet.

In the other, he became disoriented on a loop trail with a group of seniors, a trail he had walked countless times, and ended up bushwhacking them back to the parking lot. He was accused of being incompetent, which he wasn’t. He just wasn’t ready yet.

And so he was placed on indefinite, unpaid leave.

Sitting with a yellow pad on her knees at one end of the sofa, Stacey asked, “What are three components of a good program?”

At the other end, the interpreter replied, “One--Fun! It should be really fun! And two-- Experiential! The participants should experience new things, new sights, sounds, textures. And three-- A message! The participants should go home, understanding and appreciating more about the natural world!”

She said, “Fine. But do it without the sarcastic voice and airy fairy hand gestures.”

“I’ll sit on my hands,” he said.

She said, “Just be the best you you can be, but at the same time a bit more generic, less you.”

“I don’t think that makes sense,” he said. They wrestled on the sofa, until the interpreter said, “The question I never know how to answer, that strikes fear into my heart, is the one about where do you see yourself in five years. All I can think of is I hope I have a new car by then.”

She narrowed her eyes to think. She came up with “Looking to take my interpretive skills, which I have nurtured and expanded in this position, and marry them with past work and educational experience, to a position of greater influence within this or a similarly important organization.”

“I don’t know what that means,” he said. “Please write it down.”

Stacey had bought him a pale blue dress shirt and an appropriate jacket and encouraged him to get a proper haircut. She had managed to make him look good.

They parked in the underground lot in a far corner. He would wait in her car for twenty minutes after she went in. After the interview, they would go out to lunch to celebrate, or to commiserate, depending on how things went. Their relationship was so far a secret and at least for now had to stay that way, because Stacey had been chosen to sit on the panel that would decide his fate. She said, “Remember, at the interview, minimal eye-contact, no knowing glances, that sort of thing.”

“Right,” he said. “No groping.”

She pecked him on the cheek. “You’ll do great,” she said.

Following the plan, he took the elevator to the seventeenth floor twenty minutes later. He entered the department and leaned against the departmental assistant’s work station.

“Hi there,” he said to Judy, the woman who had sat at this station since long before the interpreter was first hired. He had a deep respect for and feeling of kinship toward departmental assistants, who in other times had been known as receptionists or secretaries. He believed that they too were underpaid and under-respected. But he also saw that unlike interpreters they wielded real power. You crossed a departmental assistant at your peril.

“Hello Honey,” she said. “And don’t you look nice! I heard you haven’t been well.” Here was a thing the interpreter had noticed. Rarely would people, knowing full well what happened, actually acknowledge you had been struck by lightning –although news of it spread as fast as the lightning itself. No one wanted to finger you as winner of the ultimate, Deity-designated booby-prize.

“Yeah, well, let’s hope it was a one-off, like mumps,” said the interpreter. “I’m fine now, thanks. I'm here for an interview.”

“I know you are, and you’ll do very well.”

“You say that every time.”

“And you always do.”

He was surprised at who opened the door to invite him into the boardroom. “Come on in,” said a tall man with politician hair. “Nice to see you again, you know everyone here?” This was Ken Beam, a high-ranking managerial type. The interpreter didn’t think he was in his direct chain of command, but he could have been wrong--the hierarchy of the department was an unfathomable thing to those with no interest in climbing it.

“Yes, thanks. Hi everyone,” said the interpreter. He was also surprised to see Ed Daddle, a Park Planner, seated at the table. The interpreter had worked with Ed Daddle a few times, helping with endangered species surveys in parks where new roads or buildings were to be constructed. He found Ed to be self-important, rude, and lazy. Planners and upper echelon types never attended the interviews of interpreters. Why were these guys here?

Next to Ed was Delores Wright, a woman close to retirement who was the interpreter’s immediate superior. She had been involved in park interpretation since shortly after high school. Delores was seen as harmless by those above her, but as an impediment to needed change by those below, most who would eventually quit in frustration, or find a better position elsewhere in the vast Parks bureaucracy.

Across the table from Delores was Stacey, with a tense smile. Beside her was Evelyn Kerr, who held a position parallel to Stacey’s, but for a different set of parks.

The interpreter walked behind Stacey as though she were simply any other person in the universe, and took his seat.

He was asked for his résumé, which he produced from a folder and passed to Delores, who passed it on to Ed. Ed Daddle pretended to peruse it, but couldn’t read a word; he wouldn’t wear reading glasses in the presence of young women.

The interpreter also placed on the table three medical reports – one from the department psychologist, one from a psychologist his family physician had referred him to, and one from the neurologist who had ordered the MRI. The prognoses were in agreement, expectation of a full and rapid recovery from the trauma of the lightning strike.

The neurologist had explained to the interpreter, “The brain is a complex organ that continues to surprise and mystify those who study it. In many cases, when it receives a serious injury, it heals itself by constructing new pathways around the damage. Think of it this way. Your brain is like an ant colony. Someone comes along and kicks it – in your case, strikes it with lightning--and immediately the ants start scurrying around, getting down to business, and before you know it you have a fully functional ant colony again.”

“That’s a great analogy,” said the interpreter.

He was asked a series of questions, as predicted the same ones he had answered at previous interviews in this same room. The questioning proceeded clockwise around the table, one per interviewer. He answered all questions clearly and fully, with a friendly, confident voice. He used all the buzzwords and catch-phrases he and Stacey had practiced, although it hurt to do so.

And then, as expected, came the mystery box, which contained no mysteries, as the items inside never varied. He was to identify the objects and say something informative about them. There was a Barn Owl feather, very tattered, a sapsucker-drilled log, crumbling, a chiton shell, in pieces, and a blue glass Japanese fishing float, which everyone knew belonged to Delores, and except during interviews sat in a ceramic bowl on her mantelpiece at home.

Ken Beam interrupted. “Can we skip some of this? I’m a bit tight for time. Let’s do the, ah, the one where Delores pretends she’s nine.”

“I pretend I’m seven,” said Delores, “not nine.”

Hell, though the interpreter. The role-playing bit. He hated role-playing, especially in front of an audience.

Delores would pretend to be a seven-year old who had found something in the woods. The interviewee would demonstrate that even if he or she wasn’t sure of or didn’t know what the thing was, he or she could still include the child in the process of discovery. Delores’s sincere, unintentionally hilarious impersonation of a somewhat dim seven-year-old was a feature of every interpretation interview, and famous.

She was sitting to the interpreter’s immediate left, reaching below the table for the found item, which was always the jaw bone of a deer.

“If I may,” said Ken, “Please use this one instead.” He reached beneath the other end of the table, and came up with a small, round hat box with vertical red and white stripes on the sides and a red lid. He shoved it down the table to Ed, who passed it to Delores.

Delores looked in, moved some tissue paper aside, and pulled out what looked like a hand-sized, V-shaped bone, with one arm shorter than the other, and curving inward. There was a strong ridge down the long arm, and a circular hole at the apex. It had been cleaned, but remained stained from being buried in soil for some time. It was clear she had no idea what it was, which leant a unique hint of veracity to what was about to ensue. She cleared her throat.

“Hey Mister, look what I found.” Seven-year-old Delores held out the thing to the interpreter. “What is this?”

He took it with both hands, and examined one side, and then the other. “Oh wow, very interesting,” said the interpreter in an encouraging voice. “And where did you find this, Delores?”

“Um, over there, somewhere...”

“Was it in the forest?”

Seven-year-old Delores wasn’t sure. The exercise had been set off-kilter by a foreign item. She looked at Ken Beam.

“It was near the lake edge,” said Ed.

“Shh!” said Ken. “No clues!”

The interpreter said, “Well, do you think it came from a plant, or from an animal?”

Delores shrugged pricelessly.

“Do you think it could be some kind of bone?”

“Yes it’s a bone!” said Delores. “Do you know what kind of bone it is?”

“To be honest I’ve never seen anything quite like this,” said the interpreter. “We can take it back to the nature house and look at pictures on the computer until we see something that matches. I have a feeling this one is going to be tricky, but don’t worry, that makes finding out the answer all the more fun.”

“Oh, good!” said young Delores.

“Oh c’mon, you got to know,” Ed said.

The interpreter looked at Ed. “No really, I don’t. It’s bone, sure, but I’ve never seen whatever this is before. Does that matter for the sake of this interview question?” He placed the bone on the table.

“But aren’t you this legendary know-it-all?” Ed drummed his fingers.

“If you let me borrow it I can probably track it down if you really want to know.”

“But you don’t know what it is right now,” clarified Ken Beam.

“Sorry,” said the interpreter.

“Look again.” Ed slapped the table. “Think!”

“He can’t be expected to know everything,” said Ken. “If UBC couldn’t identify it, why should he be able to?”

“Um, this isn’t really the point of the exercise,” said Delores, back to her true chronological age. “It’s all about working through a process of discovery with a young child.”

“Exactly,” said Ken. “And it was done as well as humanly possible.” He got up, pushed back his chair, and walked behind Ed and Delores, slapping Ed on the back as he passed. He shook the interpreter’s hand, which drew him from his seat. “Good job,” he said. “We’ll let you know this afternoon.” He tapped the interpreter on the shoulder with the front of a closed fist, which the interpreter took as a signal to leave. He glanced at Stacey, who looked worried.

He sat in Stacey’s car, feeling his back muscles tighten, which sent a broad, unpleasant, burn throughout his entire body. This sometimes happened when he was tense. He pulled the handle to lower the seatback and tried to relax in the somewhat sinister darkness of the parking garage.

He heard her work shoes clicking on the concrete and popped the locks with her key. She opened the door, sat down behind the steering wheel and closed the door.

The interpreter couldn’t get the seatback back up and then suddenly it went too far. He gave up. “There, perfect,” he said, leaning forward.

Stacey stared ahead. “Well I, of course, voted yes. Evelyn voted no. She said you are too old-school, not attuned to newer methods in interpretation.”

“Whatever that means,” said the interpreter.

“It means puppet shows and dressing up. Evelyn thinks interpretation should be like children’s morning television.”

“I don’t need to guess about Ed Daddle. He’s never liked me and he was pretty hostile for whatever reason.”

“Correct. Ed voted no. He said you have important gaps in your knowledge, for example not being able to identify the bone, which may also indicate you haven’t recovered sufficiently.”

The interpreter bristled. “He’s an idiot.”

“Yes, everyone knows that, but there’s more to it. I heard him joking with Ken afterwards. Apparently they had a fifty-dollar bet that you wouldn’t know what the bone was. Ed, despite not liking you, bet that you would, so he’s steamed. You cost him fifty bucks.”

“Good,” said the interpreter, "But why would they bet on that?”

“They bet all the time, on anything. It’s a stupid thing they have.”

“Is that the only reason they were there?”

“Yes,” said Stacey. “It’s like that at Head Office, middle-aged teenagers. Forget about it.”  She continued, “Delores voted yes. She said it was unconscionable the way in which your role-playing exercise was derailed. She was as angry as I’ve ever seen her. She actually frowned.”

“Dear, sweet Delores,” said the interpreter.

“And as for Ken Beam,” said Stacey. The tie-breaker.

“Lay it on me,” said the interpreter.

“He said, ‘Why the hell is this guy an interpreter? If he wants to keep being one, let him.’”

“So I’m still in?”

Stacey squeezed his thigh. He put his hand on hers. When he lifted it, she released his leg and held her palm open for the keys. But he took her hand, and kissed her fingertips.

“Hmmmm?” she said. “Why are you looking so...crazy?”

He said, “I was lying. I do know what the bone is. It’s not a single bone. It’s several bones fused together. We need to find out where it was found.”

“What is it?” she asked.

“Something huge.”


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Sally said...

Very nice. Read the whole blankety-blank thing, from the beginning. Addictive, even.

Good work, fever or no!

swamp4me said...

Thank you. I laughed till I cried - as anyone in the "business" would. Particularly entertaining were the "three components" and the reference to puppets. I would point out others, but I want to keep my job. Somehow it is comforting, and simultaneously depressing, to know that interviews involving interpretation/education jobs are so scarily similar ;)

So, your take home message:
Fever serves you well!

Aunt Debbi/kurts mom said...

loved the end.

Seabrooke said...

Another excellent installment! And long is good, the longer the better! I'm always disappointed when I get to the end and then have to wait for the next one. :)

Hugh said...

Thanks Sally, for reading the whole...thing, and for your lovely comment. More on the way.

Swampy, I know exactly what you mean. It is a small world with universal frustrations.

Oh good. Thanks Aunt D!

Thanks again, Seabrooke. CWM came in the mail a couple days ago. Onward we go.

Seabrooke said...

Glad to hear you got a copy, Hugh! Best of luck with it, I hope somebody snaps you up!